Charlie Bartlett is a high school comedy which comes off as kind of a cross
between Ferris Beuller and Rushmore. The titular hero is a rich kid who has
been kicked out of every private prep school he might conceivably go to, thus
dooming him to public school, where the somewhat soft-spoken and almost
feminine young man shows up the first day carrying a leather attaché case and
wearing a blue blazer crowned by a Latin insignia. As you can well imagine, he
manages to last about a half hour before having his head stuck in the toilet.
But Charlie is a determined and crafty lad who wants to be liked, so he
concocts a plan. He has unlimited access to prescription drugs through his
family's psychiatrists, and the bully who stuck Charlie's head in the toilet
has what it takes to distribute those drugs, so Charlie proposes a
partnership. Charlie soon realizes that he can't just give everyone the same
drugs, so he consults with them, determines their symptoms, then repeats those
symptoms to one of his mom's many shrinks. Bingo. He's not only the school's
drug dealer, but its psychiatrist as well.
Activities like this can't be kept secret very long, so it is inevitable
that Charlie will come into conflict with the school's principal, and their
relationship will be further strained by the fact that Charlie is dating the
You're probably thinking that the film sounds like a typical high school
comedy, probably a straight-to-vid. It's better than that. Maybe I can convey
why by telling you that the film's authority figure is played by Robert Downey
Jr., who's not exactly the first person you'd think of when casting a stern
authority figure who needs to crush a teenage drug epidemic. Downey's
character was once the beloved and cynical history teacher, a job for which he
was perfectly suited. He was unwise enough to accept a promotion to principal,
a job totally inappropriate for his natural iconoclasm, and the frustration of
trying to function in the job drove him deep into the bottle. His wife left
him, which drove him deeper into the bottle. As we pick up his story, the only
thing he has left in life is his daughter, who is now having sex with the same
kid who's disrupting his school, a certain Charlie Bartlett.
By allowing the principal to be a complex and somewhat sympathetic
character, the script lifts the film above the level of the usual story about
high school rebellion. In fact, the film allows all of the adults to live and
breathe. Charlie's mother, although dotty, is also very interesting,
kind-hearted and sometimes surprisingly wise. The local police chief prefers
cooling off to busting heads. The only cartoon authority figure is a
superintendent of schools who is despised by both the kids and the principal.
The film can be forgiven that clumsy device for the complexity it exhibits
Unfortunately, the film's successes in characterization are not really matched by
its wit. I really wish I could tell you it is a great comedy, because I liked
its heart, and I liked its characters. But it isn't. It has a lot of the right
ingredients, but it just isn't that funny. The film was originally supposed to
be released last summer, but I can see why it was pulled from the summer
schedule. It's not a rollicking, low-brow summer comedy, despite its premise.
Without the laughs, the film comes up long on teen angst, and plays out as
a thoughtful character study disguised as a comedy, kind of like Pump Up the
Volume without the edge. If you're OK with that, it's a pleasant way to
pass the time.
But if only it had a Spicoli. It coulda binna contenda.